Little Women

The following things about Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” have surprised me:  it’s a very Christian work; it’s ridiculously funny; and tremendously erudite.

The movies of “Little Women” that I’ve seen don’t give a sense of the following things:  it’s a very Christian work; it’s ridiculously funny; and tremendously erudite.

(To be more precise, it’s Christian/Transcendentalist.)

Other surprises for me in the novel, having only previously seen the movies from 1994 and 2019:  the extent of Meg’s vanity; and the extent of Laurie’s taste for pranks.

The strength of “Little Women” for me is that its characters are imperfect and they struggle with their flaws regularly.  The kids feel, speak and act like kids, which I understand is why the book was so popular from the start.  But I didn’t think of this novel that way, simply because the movies don’t give you a sense of that:  the girls and boys and women and men in the movies feel like really wholesome, attractive people with only incidental or quirky flaws rather than honest character defects like the rest of us. 

In the novel, you get that.  There is a wide berth between the characters’ idealizations of themselves, of others, of marriage, and so forth; and this berth is the source of much of Alcott’s humor. 

I feel like when the movies touch on the theme, for example, of the disillusionment often found in marriage, they treat it like a serious drama.  Alcott treats it like a serious matter too but she has a lot more fun with it, which I think makes her criticism more successful.

I stopped about 100 pages in to read John Bunyan’s “Pilgrim’s Progress”, because “Little Women” was making constant reference to it.  So I read “Pilgrim” and returned to “Little Women,” foolishly assuming that Bunyan’s novel would be the only one heavily-leaned on by Alcott, but almost immediately I saw that I’d have to stop and read “Pickwick Papers” too.  But I didn’t bother; I could see it would be fruitless trying to keep up with Alcott’s references, besides also being pointless:  the chapter in which the March sisters impersonate four male characters in the “Pickwick Papers” was so good, I hardly think it could have been improved for me by reading the Dickens original.

The girls playing Pilgrim

I read “Little Women” without knowing that Louisa May Alcott was pushed by her readers and publishers to marry off Jo.  The romance with Bhaer, in that sense, is like a late addition.  But I couldn’t tell so from reading it.

And for me it works well.  To have kept Jo unmarried would have been interesting if Alcott had developed that fate for her, as no doubt she could do.  But the fact that Jo is attracted to someone who is her intellectual equal makes sense and does not negate, in itself, Jo’s ability to write and think independently. 

What is disappointing is that Jo gives up writing because of Bhaer’s criticisms of the sensationalistic stories that she’s been writing for income – and that Bhaer is happy with her giving it up.  Jo is validly criticized for writing such stories, but why can’t she then write the better stuff that she is capable of, and defend it?

There are things in “Little Women” that are more explicitly feminist or modern than anything in Jane Austen:  Marmee’s advice that men should be in the nursery, for example; or Jo’s stating “I’m your man”, and other things indicating forcefully that she questions why she should be a girl in this particular world.  And there are things in “Little Women” that are more explicitly traditionalist than anything in Austen, e.g., “a woman’s happiest kingdom is home”.

I’ve seen online that countless fans wish Jo had ended up with Laurie instead, and while I feel for Laurie when he’s rejected, I think Jo made the right choice.  And I don’t think it’s strange that Laurie doesn’t attract Jo’s mind or move her spirit in the way that occurs when she meets the professor.

One thing that bugged me is how much Alcott uses alliteration.  It’s even in the titles of the two novels that Alcott chooses to allude to frequently in “Little Women”:  “The Pilgrim’s Progress” and “The Pickwick Papers.”  She alliterates so frequently that at times I despaired, and I knew not why. 

He was possessed with a mania for patronizing Yankee ingenuity, and seeing his friends fitly furnished forth.

That is an egregious example; by far most of the alliteration is fine, if you don’t let it distract you.

Alcott impresses me most as a craftsman, a truly skillful storyteller, not just a “messager” or “lessoner” (my words, not hers).

My best tribute to her would be quoting her own words at length. 

There are so many memorable passages in “Little Women.” The following is not even what I would call the best passage in the book, but it’s very good and it’s about writing a book, so it’s just as meta as you could possibly want:

“It seems to me that Jo will profit more by taking the trial than by waiting,” said Mrs. March. “Criticism is the best test of such work, for it will show her both unsuspected merits and faults, and help her to do better next time. We are too partial, but the praise and blame of outsiders will prove useful, even if she gets but little money.”…

Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.

“You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it’s so contradictory that I don’t know whether I’ve written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?” cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. “This man says, `An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness. All is sweet, pure, and healthy,'” continued the perplexed authoress. “The next, `The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.’ Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don’t believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don’t see how this critic can be right. Another says, `It’s one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.’ (I know better than that), and the next asserts that `Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.’ ‘Tisn’t! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I’d printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged.”

Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally. Yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value gave her the criticism which is an author’s best education, and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.

“Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she said stoutly, “and I’ve got the joke on my side, after all, for the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced `charmingly natural, tender, and true’. So I’ll comfort myself with that, and when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.”

I would not have read “Little Women” if not for recommending the movies to my daughter one day; she took to the story right away, I got involved in the story, and I had to get the book — which as I said was a book of surprises for me.

Here’s a review of both “Little Women” and “March,” a kind of prequel by Geraldine Brooks that follows the patriarch of the March family:

A comparison of the book “Little Women” with its 1994 and 2019 adaptations:

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